SnowblindBy Alice C. Aldridge
The section leader cringed, loath to abandon even the scant relief of shared body heat among his half-frozen troopers, but trudged reluctantly over to his commanding officer. Space Commander Travis was bareheaded, seemingly oblivious to the frigid wind, as he glowered over the shoulder of the unlucky commtech manning their virtually useless scanner. His cold-eyed expression was scarcely warmer than the cruel winds whipping around them.
Brant saluted sluggishly, barely able to open his clenched, half-frozen fingers, then reluctantly raised his helmet's face mask at Travis's impatient gesture.
"Scan shows hundreds of caves in this area. Some are actually inside the glacier, though the majority are honeycombed through the cliffs. The approaching storm is playing hell with the directional signal so we can't get a hard fix on the rebels' location. Order your troops to fan out and search for signs of human habitation."
Brant took a hopeless swipe at the icy slush on his upper lip, results of a perpetually runny nose. "Signs of human habitation?" he croaked, peering at the ice dervishes whipped up by a wind that howled like one of the damned souls in hell. "But there are too many caves for us to search one by one."
"Use your brain . . . if you have one." Travis barked impatiently, icy streaks silvering his dark hair. "Forget about the ice caves and use infrareds to screen the rest. Any difference in the ambient around an entry point or waste vents ought to stand out like a mag lamp. Now get to it!"
Turning away from the section leader, Travis grimaced, massaging the old wound where his patch's frigid edges gouged into sensitive scar tissue. It was the only hint of human weakness Brant had seen in the driven officer since they had set down on this frozen wasteland.
"Blake and his rabble will be here soon. He probably heard about Dickon's band blowing up the comm relay station before the base commander's report reached Servalan's desk. He'll come here to finish the job and further disrupt Federation operations in this sector."
He flexed the fingers of his artificial hand, bringing up his laseron weapon as though drawing a bead on a target. " I know his tactics well. He'll walk into my trap . . . and when I have him in my sights, I'll kill him slowly . . . blowing off one piece at a time, like he did to me."
Brant shivered at the menace in those soft-spoken words, much colder than the bitter winds that threatened to blow them off the frozen mountainside.
* * *
Aboard Liberator, Kerr Avon stared in distaste at the forbidding display on Zen's viewscreen then turned his scornful glare towards the two bulky figures on the flight deck. They were already kitted out in Liberator's survival gear, insulated boots, furlined parkas and thermal generators that would enable them to survive in a minus 50 degree blizzard.
"I hope this doesn't turn into another 'hare and hounds' rescue mission like Avalon's." His silky voice was only marginal degrees warmer than the planet's frozen surface.
The smaller of the two figures shoved back his hood revealing a mass of thick dark curls that topped a beguiling grin and a forcefully set jaw. Though the grin seemed somewhat forced and there were spiderwebs of strain in the corner of his eyes, Roj Blake's revolutionary zeal burned as brightly as ever despite Avon's disapproval.
"I guarantee this won't be another rescue mission, Avon. This rebel cell has taken stringent precautions to safeguard their security. There's no way the Federation could have discovered the location of this meeting."
Avon grimaced, "Somehow I find that less than reassuring, especially since promises of security you've given us in the past have proved false. Your road to hell is obviously paved with misplaced confidence."
The burly giant at Blake's side shoved back his own hood, wiping the sweat from his eyes. "Please don't get started on another one of those arguments," he rumbled impatiently. "I'm about to burn up inside these furs!"
Blake glanced at Avon in sidelong amusement before acknowledging Gan's protest and pulling up his hood again. " Well, if we are on the road to hell, at least we'll stay warm during this mission."
Striding down the hallway to the teleport, Blake wasn't aware of Avon staring after him, his dark eyes smouldering with distrust.
As soon as they materialized, the icy winds and blowing snow lashed both men with a bone-numbing cold.
"Down and safe," Blake managed to gasp into his teleport bracelet, through teeth chattering in shock at the abrupt change.
Within moments, the thermal units in their suits had compensated for the sudden temperature drop and Blake scanned the area for the rebels he was supposed to meet there.
Gan cupped his mittened hands around his eyes, trying to shield them from the stinging snow. "Where are they, Blake? Isn't this the meeting place you agreed on?"
"It should be." The rebel leader peered up the sheer cliffs soaring above the low-hanging clouds. "These are the grid coordinates they transmitted."
"If they've been delayed, maybe we should try to contact them.".
"No," Blake answered shortly. "There's at least one more Federation listening post here, besides the one they destroyed. We can't take the chance of our signal being intercepted. Dickon's a man of his word, he'll get here as soon as he can."
Gan grunted, flapping his arms across his chest and stamping his feet in an effort to keep warm.
Suddenly a burst of laser fire seared into the ice shelf just over their heads, half-blinding them in a cloud of steam and flying ice chips. Instinctively both men dived for cover, barely managing to dodge the next beam. A ragged series of blaster fire followed, triggering geysers of steam and exploding rock that forced Blake and Gan to withdraw into the ice-choked canyon.
Cursing the ice-laden winds that had spoiled his first shot, Travis charged out from behind the rocks where they had been waiting in ambush, ranting at his troops, "Come on, you slime eaters! Don't let them get away!"
An ominous rumble sounded from the ridge above where Blake had taken cover, causing Travis's men to mill nervously at the edge of that cold, grey gorge.
"Sir," Brant tried to restrain his rabid superior. "That ice sheet is unstable, if we go in firing, it may collapse on top of us."
Travis's eye gleamed in a blue-hot fury as he backhanded the reluctant section leader with his cyberarm, stopping just short of the necessary force to dislocate the ranker's jaw.
"I gave you an order, trooper," he grated. "Now either follow it or die!" The crystal arming circuit on the laseron gleamed menacingly as Travis aimed at him, forcing Brant to swallow back his protests before waving the rest of the section to follow.
Pushing ahead of his men, Travis ignored the danger, determined that Blake would not escape him this time, if he had to follow the man into the pit of hell itself. Some twenty yards away, he caught sight of a large, fur-clad figure ducking behind some tumbled rocks that jutted out of the ice.
Travis cursed under his breath. Almost out of range! If Blake escaped this time, he'd have Brant flayed alive! Plowing through the thigh-deep snow, he overrode the safety circuits on his laseron for a single long-range blast of fire. That should bring his target down!
Just as he took aim, he caught a flash of movement off to the extreme left, at the very edge of the restricted vision field of his remaining eye. He pivoted sharply and saw Blake, drawing a bead on him, less than twenty feet away. Aiming and firing instinctively, Travis forgot his weapon was set for long-range targeting. Blake dropped as the beam seared past him, boiling deep inside the frozen ice face beyond. But before he could fire his weapon, the outcropping of ice and rock that was just hit, sheared away from the cliff with an almost human moan, creating a juggernaut of debris that rumbled down the canyon, sweeping over the two men directly in its path.
Jenna stared at Zen's screens, her thoughts nearly as desolate as the bleak scene displayed there. Blake's actions recently, especially their close brush with the Terra Nostra had shaken her confidence, fueling a growing disenchantment with both the man and his cause. She was hardly an idealist. Raised by the pragmatic tenets of the Free Trader's Enclave, she had little patience with Blake's visionary zeal. But the man himself, with his potent charisma and passionate fervor, appealed to her, burning through the icy shell of cynicism she had built around her emotions. Fool that she was, she thought she could seduce him, turning his fervor from politics to romance, then lure him back to her homeworld as the bondmate she needed to claim her inheritance. With Liberator at her command, she was certain they would be eagerly welcomed by the clan she had abandoned years before.
Instead, she found herself sleeping in a cold lonely bed, while Blake remained enamored with his suicidal cause. Staring at Zen's display of icy planet below, Jenna shivered as chill uncertainty gained a foothold in her heart. Her dark brood was interrupted by a static-filled call from the surface.
"Liberator, come in. Liberator, can you hear me? This is Gan."
She activated the comm, "Jenna here. Can you turn up your gain? Your signal's breaking up so I can hardly hear you."
"Same here," his voice was strained. "There's a storm on the way plus my bracelet was shaken up when I was caught on the edge of an avalanche."
"Avalanche?" Jenna jerked upright, "What happened? Where's Blake?"
"I'm not sure. We weren't that far apart when the snow and ice swept over us. After Dickon's men dug me out, I tried to contact him . . . but no luck. I didn't know if our bracelets were damaged . . . or if the approaching storm is to blame. Anyway, the rebels we were supposed to meet are searching for him right now."
Avon retorted sharply, having just entered the flight deck, "You don't expect us to teleport down into the middle of that storm and fetch Blake out of another one of his messes?"
A second voice chimed in on Gan's bracelet, barely audible over the howling wind. "Ash Dickon here. Actually we were hoping you could use your ship's scanners to give us a better idea of where to dig. According to your man here, they were ambushed by a Federation patrol and the exchange of fire triggered the ice slide."
Avon's disapproving expression turned into alarm, "A Federation patrol! Why didn't you alert us sooner? There could be a whole flotilla of pursuit ships lying in wait up here, ready to ambush us!"
"No," Dickon's flat denial cut across Avon's outburst. "Space Command sent in a construction gang just after we blew the relay station, but that was all until Space Commander Travis showed up with a recon patrol in the last twenty-four hours. Which was why I arranged a rendezvous with Blake rather than giving him our coordinates."
"And you didn't see fit to inform him he might be teleporting down into the middle of a possible Federation ambush?" There was a brittle edge to Avon's voice.
"The risk was small," Dickon's reply was equally sharp.
"Except he still managed to get himself buried on this frozen hellhole," Avon bared his teeth in a feral grin. "And you want our help to dig him out."
Cally's soft voice interrupted as she entered the flight deck, "I will teleport down as soon as I get my cold weather gear. Even though I cannot read Blake's thoughts, I may be able to sense his aura . . . if he is still alive." She turned a questioning gaze on Avon and Jenna, "Will either of you be coming with me?"
Jenna glanced over at the helm controls then back to the icy wasteland on the viewscreen. "I'll come . . ."
"Don't be a fool, " Avon hissed. "If that is Travis down there, odds are he has a flotilla of pursuit ships in orbit nearby, just waiting for their chance at Liberator."
Jenna hesitated a moment, recalling their prior encounter with the ruthless Federation officer, who was so obsessed with killing Blake. He exhibited a ruthless savagery and keen animal cunning that had nearly resulted in their deaths on two separate occasions. Much as she hated to admit it, Avon was probably right since Travis seemed equally eager to get his hands on Liberator as on Blake.
"All right, " she nodded reluctantly, "but we can still use Zen's scanners to help find Blake, while Orac monitors communications for any sign of a Federation patrol"
Avon nodded in sour disagreement, getting the necessary details from Dickon and Gan.
Jenna and Cally exchanged glances before the Auron left to don her cold weather gear. Yet even as Jenna busied herself with Liberator's controls convinced she'd made the best decision for everyone's sake, she also knew she'd taken one more irreversible step distancing herself from Blake and his cause.
* * *
Back inside the bare comfort of their shuttle, the surviving members of Travis's patrol shivered and groaned as their numbed extremities began to thaw. While the other troopers sprawled on the deck, Brant rummaged hastily through the weapons locker, giving a grunt of satisfaction when he found a tripod-mounted wide-beam laser.
"Whattya want that for?" one of his comrades demanded. "The rebel scum are still snug in their cozy burrows. I doubt they're going to come charging down on us in this weather."
"No, " Brant nodded grimly, "but this is the only thing that might be able to dig Commander Travis out from under that avalanche."
"Dig him out?" the scan tech retorted in astonishment. "He's on ice permanently this time . . . and good riddance, I say."
Brant glanced half-guiltily at the impassive features of the mutoid who had piloted their ship, before snarling at the outspoken scan tech. "Shut your gob, Randall. He's our superior officer."
"So what?" the resentful trooper shrugged. "He's gone now, buried under a mountain of snow and ice . . . and we're better off without him."
Brant pondered that hopeful thought for a moment before reality reared its ugly head. He questioned the mutoid pilot. "Can you plot a course to take us back to Exeter?"
Her inhuman gaze seemed to look right through him. "On whose authority?"
"Mine, zombie." He tried to summon a hint of the Commander's assured arrogance as he gave his orders. "Section leader Brant, service number gamma 692 708, assuming command in the field after the death of Space Commander Travis."
"The Commander is not dead," she replied emotionlessly. "Laseron weaponry remains intact, transmitting biosign telemetry and a homing signal."
Brant shrugged, turning a resigned look on his dejected troops before half- pleading with the nonhuman pilot, "At least transmit a distress signal. Even if we're able to locate the Commander, odds are it will take more men and equipment than we've got to dig him out,".
After a seemingly eternal hesitation, she nodded and activated the shuttle's comm link.
Turning back to the reluctant squad, Brant grimaced "It looks like our only chance of getting off this iceball is to fetch the Commander . . . or his laser arm, at least . . . back." He addressed the surly scan tech. "Randall, see if you can pick up that telemetry signal the zombie referred to, then give us a readout on its coordinates."
Picking up his discarded, ice-rimed parka, he ordered harshly, "We better get kitted out again before we lose our nerve."
* * *
Blake groaned as consciousness insinuated itself back into his befogged brain. Every inch of his body ached as though he'd been beaten by a Federation Security Squad. He cracked open one eyelid experimentally, surprised to see a dusky blue half-light rather than claustrophobic darkness he'd expected after the avalanche swept over him. After brushing the snow from his face, Blake tenatively explored his chest and his ribs, relieved to find that, though stiff and sore, he was relatively uninjured.But when he tried to flex his legs, they were pinned down, unable to move.. He took a deep shuddering breath. Though he was out of the wind, the bitter cold had settled in his bones. Turning up the thermoswitch on his parka, he relaxed ever so slightly at the answering surge of heat that momentarily banished that chill.
Ignoring the strain on his back and shoulders, he pushed upright, anxious to see why his legs were immobilized. There was a body lying across them - in Federation issue coldgear - unconscious, but still breathing. Frantically, Blake groped for his weapon and once he had it in his grip, leaned over, tentatively pushing the hood back from the comatose figure's face.
Though the face was swollen and covered in blood, Blake spotted the stark black patch and recoiled as he recognized the scarred features of his worst enemy - Travis!
A blind rage boiled up inside him as he recalled the agonized, dying screams of his Freedom Party followers as they were butchered by Travis and his men. Jamming his weapon against Travis's throat, Blake's hand trembled on the firing switch. . . but he couldn't press it. The soldier was unconscious . . . defenseless! If he fired now, he would worse than Travis; killing in cold blood, without even the excuse of duty. He stared into the slack face of his would-be nemesis, trying to feed his rage so he would be able to destroy the rabid killer who hounded him across the galaxy. It wouldn't be murder, he whispered hoarsely to himself, only just retribution for the crimes this monster had committed on Earth and elsewher e.
Yet as he stared at those unconscious features without the Gorgon mask of hatred warping them, he saw the human face beneath. Not just a juggernaut of vengeance, but a man, his age or younger, shaped and molded by the Federation into Servalan's hound and antagonist of the Freedom Party. He'd defeated and humiliated Travis every time their paths crossed. Yet Servalan kept hurling the man against him, time after time, despite repeated failures, until he had to wonder just who she was set on destroying - him or her loyal officer.
He started to ease his legs out from under the limp body, muttering to himself in disgust, "I may be a rebel outlaw, Travis, but I'm not a butcher and I won't kill an unarmed man . . . not even someone who deserves it as much as you do."
As he put his weapon down in order to use both hands to free himself, to his surprise Travis's eye opened, startling Blake with its piercing clarity.
"Then you're a bigger fool than I thought," he snarled, glaring at the weapon just out of his reach. "I'd burn you down without a second thought."
Blake edged cautiously away, all too aware of the soldier's savage speed and strength, then winced at the sharp pain shooting up his left leg as he picked up his weapon and pointed it at Travis. "Maybe so, but unlike you, I have an aversion to killing a helpless foe."
Catching his breath, he gazed around curiously, noticing the ice-glazed walls that curved up over their heads and the still air growing stale with their accumulated exhalations.
"Just lie still, Travis, while I look for a way out of here," he warned, inching cautiously to his feet.
"Save your energy, " the Space Commander coughed weakly. "There isn't one. Can't you tell? We' re trapped in one of the ice caves inside the glacier! We must have dropped through its ceiling just ahead of the avalanche. Now we're buried under tons of snow and ice inside this mountain - like preatomic warrior gods, sealed up for eternity."
Still shaken and half-frozen from his narrow escape, Gan had returned with a sketchy report on the search for Blake. Although he and Cally were already kitted out for the planetary weather, after hearing Gan's account, Avon dispatched Vila to fetch a device from his quarters. Half- suffocated in Liberator's cold gear, they waited impatiently in the teleport bay while Jenna fidgeted at the controls, still uneasy about her decision to remain aboard Liberator, keeping watch for Federation ships.
She was just about to change her mind and go with them when Zen broke in.
+ Federation vessel on the planet is sending out a distress signal.+
"Jam it!" Jenna ordered sharply, then glanced in dismay at Avon.
"Orac, did you intercept that message?" Avon's voice was absolutely flat as he addressed Ensor's recalcitrant invention.
*Of course,* came the peevish answer. *Since you programmed me to intercept and decode all Federation transmissions. A waste of my valuable time, I might add.*
"What did it say?"
*Space Commander Travis caught in avalanche with fugitive Blake. Telemetry readout shows survivors. Help needed to dig them out.*
"Well," Avon turned to Cally. "At least we know he's still alive . . . if we can believe this report."
"Buried under a mountain of snow and ice . . . with Travis!" The Auron's delicate features were haunted. "We can't wait any longer. I'm going down now! "
Avon grabbed her arm, "Let's not go charging to the rescue just yet. Not until we know whether there will be a ship for us to come back to if we do manage to find him. Zen, were you able to stop that message from getting through?"
+Ninety percent probability message did not reach Exeter+ was the emotionless reply.
"Which means there's a 10 percent chance that a heavy cruiser will be waiting for us when we return." His eyes glittered fiercely as he glared at Jenna, Cally, and Vila who had just straggled up with his equipment. "Not to mention playing `hide and seek' with Travis's patrol on the surface of the planet. Scandia is looking more unhospitable all the time."
"Stay here, if you wish," Cally's expression was impassive though her voice held a definite edge of scorn. "But I intend to help Dickon's people search for Blake. Vila, activate the teleport now!"
The nervous thief hurried to comply and moments later Cally blinked out in a waver of white light.
Picking up the scanning device that Vila had dropped in his haste, Avon glanced at Jenna's uncertain expression, a caustic smile in place.
"On the other hand, if I stay here, you'll feel obligated to go down in my place, leaving me to face Exeter with this grade four idiot beside me." He glanced sidelong at Vila, whose normally nervous expression was bordering on panic.
Stepping back into the teleport bay, he shrugged. "At least down there, I can keep a close watch on the situation . . . and if we are fortunate enough to find Blake's frozen corpse, then the pragmatists will outnumber the idealists and there will be no question about pursuing this hopeless crusade any longer. Will there, Jenna?"
"No," she answered in a low whisper, not meeting his mocking gaze.
Before activating the teleport, Jenna warned, "The long-range sensors should give us at least a thirty minute warning before Exeter arrives . . . if they did pick up that signal. That's all the margin of safety we'll have. Whether you've found Blake or not, if we don't leave by then, we risk a pitched battle with a heavy cruiser . . . and her escort ships. Not good odds for our survival."
"I'll remember," he nodded.
After he materialized, he found Cally and Dickon consulting a topographical map of the area that rippled and snapped in the heavy wind.
". . .ice sheet covers almost half this continent. The geothermal springs that keep our caverns inside the cliffs habitable, also honeycomb the glacier creating shafts, pockets and ice caves that constantly grow, shrink, and disappear with the movement of the ice. "
Cally glanced around curiously at the vast, seemingly immobile sheet of ice that they were standing on. "This whole area is . . . moving?"
He shrugged dismissively, "This glacier is relatively stable. Probably less than a hundred meters a year. But the changing topography does help to conceal our base from the Federation. "
Avon trudged over, glancing scornfully around at the forbidding icescape around them. "I don't see why they would even bother with this planet. It's hardly a garden spot."
Dickon stiffened at Avon's disparagement, "It's mainly used as a communications relay link between the Ninth and Tenth Sector. But we've recently unearthed a wealth of mineral resources - xenite crystals, dycronium, pyrocite - which could bring the Federation down on us like a plague of locusts if they ever find out. That's why we sent for Blake, hoping he could help to drive them off the planet entirely!"
"Instead, he draws the attention of a heavy cruiser and her complement of pursuit ships and troopers, who will be turning over every rock in search of Space Commander Travis and likely establish a permanent base here just because Blake made an appearance in this sector."
Dickon's craggy features dropped into a scowl as he, crumpled the map he and Cally had been consulting. The Auron attempted to smooth over the sudden tension.
"Once Blake is rescued, we can help you destroy the other communications relay station. It's unlikely Travis's men will want to continue their search for long under these worsening weather conditions and even more unlikely that a heavy cruiser will be spared to help them. Your base should be safe after we leave."
Dickon glanced at Cally gratefully, then gestured for the rest of his men to join them. As Avon busied himself with calibration of his biosensing device, he gave Cally a mocking smile.
"I thought that Blake was the only blind optimist in our group but it seems I've underestimated your ability to ignore the more unpleasant facts of life."
Cally ignored his barb, turning to listen to Dickon's instruction "We dug Gan out from the eastern edge of the ice fall. Judging by the way he described his position relative to Travis and Blake, it's likely that they were swept down the Diamondback Wash, into a sideslip along this ridge. It's one of the more unstable areas because of a heat vent and the ice caves in this area are often filled with fast-moving streams."
He glanced at the small scanner in the Avon's hands, "I hope that will help us narrow down our search area?"
"Possibly," was Avon's tight-lipped reply. "It's a biosigns detector, which should give us some generalized idea of where a life form might be trapped in the caves." His dark eyes glinted maliciously. "Unfortunately, it doesn't differentiate between starry-eyed idealists and psychotic killers, so we won't know whether we've found Blake or Travis . . . until we dig them out."
Dickon refused to be baited. "We'll just have to take that chance then. Like I said, this section is extremely unstable. The caves here can fill with water or close off completely in a matter of minutes, so unless we're cautious, whoever's trapped down there won't be the only ones in danger."
Blake limped across the narrow-walled cave where they had regained consciousness, hoping Travis had been mistaken about their situation. Once out of earshot, he raised the teleport bracelet to his lips, calling softly, "Liberator, this is Blake. Jenna? Vila? Answer if you can hear me. Can anyone hear me?" But empty silence was the only reply.
He peered into the dimness searching for any kind of opening that might lead to an exit from the cave. Just beyond where they were trapped a narrow passageway opened into a large gallery filled with frozen columns, some so fragile a whisper would shatter them, others as broad as Gan's shoulders. That glassy petrified forest glittered with rainbow brilliance, reflecting the light of his hand torch as Blake trudged through, with one gloved hand attempting to shield his eyes from the glare as he searched for a way out. But the cold blue luminescence around him - ceiling, walls, floor - made it virtually impossible to identify which way he was going - up, down, or nowhere at all.
He rubbed his eyes, trying to bring his blurry vision into focus, still searching for some way out of this death trap. But the numbing cold almost froze his lashes shut until he was able to breathe on an ungloved hand and warm his cheek enough to thaw them and restore his vision.
The Federation officer had not moved from where Blake last left him. Though he was slumped against an icy wall, chin on chest, seemingly succumbing to the hopelessness of their situation. Despite his loathing for the man and everything he stood for, Blake shuddered at the thought of spending his last hours with a corpse. Kneeling, he shook Travis irritably..
"C'mon, Space Commander, surely you don't give up that easily! I thought you wanted to see me dead . . ." The words choked off as Travis struck with inhuman swiftness, seizing Blake's shoulder and pulling him down until his left hand pressed against the rebel's throat, its laseron crystal gleaming malevolent yellow in the eerie blue glow.
"I do, Blake, but I thought I'd wait and see if you found a way out first. Did you?"
Blake froze, knowing the deadly potential of that artificial arm and wondering how Travis would react to his reply. If he lied and said there was a way out, would the officer kill him to prevent his escape or offer a truce for survival's sake? And if he told the truth, what then? Would Travis kill him outright? Or be content to let them both die by inches - together in the killing cold? He shrugged. It hardly mattered. Quick or slow -- the outcome would still be the same. They were both doomed.
Sensing the answer in that resigned shrug, Travis released his painful grip and slowly dropped his left arm, "So we're trapped here. . . to die together." He shifted, dragging himself further upright, as he glanced down at his artificial arm. "Damned laseron is useless anyway. Its circuit was burned out by the long-range shot that got us into this mess." He laughed half-ruefully, his teeth chattering with cold and shock "Otherwise, I'd blow off your head and set fire to your body to warm myself one last time before I freeze to death."
Blake stared at his enemy impassively for a long moment, then reached inside his parka and disconnected its thermal unit. As Travis watched in disbelief, the rebel cross-linked the energy cell to the Federation's substandard winter gear providing him with an unexpectedly welcome warmth. Travis glared suspiciously as he kneaded his right arm and stiff, half-frozen legs, wincing at the pins and needles sensation of returning circulation.
"You're a worse fool than I thought, Blake. Surely you don't think this soft-headed gesture will make me forget how you crippled me?"
"No, I don't," Blake sighed wearily, forced to squat beside Travis in uneasy proximity so the cross-linked energy cell would continue warming his suit as well. "No more than I can forget how you and your troops slaughtered my friends and followers when our paths first crossed. But if we're both going to die here, why should I prolong the agony? Overloading the power cell will keep us marginally comfortable, until it burns out in a couple of hours. Then we'll both die from hypothermia."
"And what's to stop me from throttling you right now and taking that heating cell for myself while I watch you freeze to death?" Travis rasped.
"Nothing," Blake responded flatly. "Not a damn thing. Except it would give me the easy way out . . . and leave you to die `alone and silent.'" He glanced at Travis sidelong, noticing the disgruntled look on his face. "You do want to watch me die, don't you? Only not too quickly?"
Travis ignored the question, as he berated the rebel. "Alone and silent. Hah!" Then he glared at Blake with his remaining eye. "You're more poet than freedom fighter, aren't you? So damn good at exhorting the masses, manipulating emotions and people like they were pawns on a chessboard, you're totally blind to all the pain and suffering that you cause, like a bloody puppeteer!"
Blake shrugged, pretending to ignore his accusation but long years of observing allies and enemies alike in life and death situations persuaded Travis his shot was not wide of the mark.
"After what they did to me - warping my mind and twisting my memoried - how can you say I'm like them?" he protested.
"Maybe not, " Travis nodded a sneering agreement. "After all, psychostrategists are supposed to be subtle . . . cunning. While chaos and ruin follow in your wake like the dogs of war. The shambles of that breakout on the London. The bloodbath on Cygnus Alpha. How many worlds have you destroyed trying to set them free?" he spat with contempt.
Blake's eyes burned but he answered softly, "It's Federation oppression that's the real destroyer, iron control crushing the life out of its citizens and its worlds. I only offer them a dream, hope of freedom and a better life. Given even a small taste of that freedom, many of those who follow me would rather die free men than live under Federation tyranny again."
"Freedom . . . and a better life," Travis growled. "What does a privileged Alpha like you know of the cost of freedom outside the protected enclaves of Earth? . You've never been cold or hungry or had to fight off savage beasts just so you can survive to starve another day. Your fine speeches and pretty words don't fill empty bellies or offer protection from the brutality of man and beast alike on the Outer Worlds."
Startled by that angry vehemence, Blake scrutinized his longtime enemy, as though seeing him for the first time. The features were more rugged, harsher than he recalled, without the inbred Alpha blandness of most Space Command officers and his voice definitely lacked the refined accents of an Academy graduate.
"You're not Earthborn, are you?" he said slowly. "You're from one of the Rim Worlds, beyond the Federation's control."
"Where life is cheap and survival dearly bought," Travis grated out harshly. "I grew up on the thin edge of starvation, watching family and friends on my homeworld winnowed down by unstable weather patterns, crop failures, wild beasts and disease . . . until a Federation troop ship conscripted me off that deathtrap." Travis's eye narrowed and he clenched his jaw as though swallowing back further revelations. "So don't preach to me about `freedom and a better life', I know firsthand how brutal life can be without the `rule of law' and troops to enforce it."
"But what about the brutality of those same troops in the name of Federation law?" was Blake angry retort. "Were you so blindly obedient that you didn't even question your orders to shoot unarmed civilians?"
Travis raised his head to turn his piercing gaze on Blake once again, "Your people had been warned about unlawful gatherings and somehow I don't think you were there just to circulate petitions. Armed or not, your group was dangerous, inciting Deltas to riot and raiding the indoctrination centers, releasing vicious crimos. My orders were to prevent your radical ideas from spreading . . . and I did."
"Radical ideas," Blake whispered hoarsely. "Like the right of peaceful assembly and the right to a fair trial, so innocent citizens aren't declared guilty on trumped up charges or whole families punished for a single member's crime."
Travis's head jerked up, his jaw set and trembling, "I didn't say the system was perfect, Blake, but even harsh laws are better than mob rule and blood in the streets."
Blake felt the acid gall of anger and frustration rising in his throat but swallowed back the scalding words that threatened to erupt. He shook his head wearily. It wouldn't help to scream and rant at Travis over their mutually destructive past. They were here in the present, trapped in this frozen prison together. Cooperation wouldn't get them out of this mess but at least it might make their dying a little less painful.
He shifted position, trying to ease his aching leg, as he reflected on Travis's outburst and the unspoken pain and guilt that colored his words. "Was it worth it?"
Travis leaned back, his eye half-closed in the gloom, "What?"
"Conscription -- and loss of freedom -- for your survival."
"You don't miss what you never had, Blake. They pay me to follow orders, not engage in meaningless political debate."
The thermal unit faltered for a moment and bone-chilling cold raked its icy talons down his back. Blake shivered, huddling close as he felt the frigid breath of death closing in on them. Taking a deep shuddering breath, he sagged against his old enemy, clinging to the last dregs of human warmth in the frozen cavern.
"Power cell's fading," Travis rasped hoarsely. "It won't be long now." He couldn't see Blake's face, slumped together as they were. "Freezing's not a bad way to go . . . though I never thought I'd die in my sleep." His chin dropped to his chest then jerked upright, hanging onto life with grim tenacity.
"You'd rather to go out in a blaze of glory?" Blake mumbled as he drew his knees up, still trying to warm his increasingly numb feet.
"Better to run with the wolves than be led like a lamb to slaughter, starving to death as a raggedy ass farmer on a backwater world." Travis gave a hollow, mocking laugh. "I don't regret my years in Space Command. Or I didn't before Servalan assumed command." His expression turned dark.
Blake wrapped an elbow around one knee. "Couldn't you find some other way to survive out on the Rim . . . besides selling yourself to the Federation, body and soul?"
"The one lesson I took from my hard-scrabble homeworld was `kill or be killed'!" Travis continued with mordant humor. "Which limited my options to Space Force or the Terra Nostra."
Ignoring that caustic tone, Blake chuckled wryly, "If you had become a hired gun or other crimo, you and I might be on the same side now." Then he sobered, "At least you believe in what you're fighting for, even if you are wrong. I wish more my followers had your dedication."
Travis craned his neck, trying to see the expression on the other man's face, wondering if Blake was mocking him. Blake dragged himself around so that they were face to face. On the brink of eternity, with nothing but cold cinders remaining of the ideals and obsessions that once burned within each man's soul, honesty was the only thing left between them.
Travis reached out, his right hand gripping Blake's with surprising strength. "And I wish someone as honest as you was leading Space Command."
As they shared that momentary camaraderie, the walls around them began to buckle and shift. Blake raised his arm involuntarily, trying to shield himself from shards of ice that showered down of them while Travis grimaced, unable to dodge the falling debris. "Glacier must be on the move again. Looks like we won't freeze to death after all."
Jerking Travis roughly to his feet, Blake gasped, "Come on, there's a larger cavern just beyond this one. I think we can reach it before these walls collapse."
Stumbling across the frozen floor of the cave, the two men staggered into the next gallery barely ahead of the collapsing walls. Blake hobbled to its far end, dragging the battered Space Commander, then dropped him and collapsed weakly beside him. His panting breaths smoked white in the gelid air and the sweat running down his forehead quickly froze.
Despite his throbbing head, Travis propped himself on one elbow, glaring in disgust.
"You fool! Charging out like a bloody cadet trying to win a medal. If you'd just waited a few seconds, the cave-in would have finished us, instead of still being stuck here, half-frozen, wondering how much longer it will take to die."
"Sorry," Blake winced, his injured leg throbbing painfully from the sudden stress. "I didn't think. Besides . . . " He cocked his head to one side. "I heard something . . . voices and heavy equipment, as though someone was very close, trying to reach us."
"Typical rebel," Travis grumbled. "Tearing around without a thought in . . ." He paused in mid-tirade, as Blake's words sank in. "Trying to reach us? You mean . . . dig us out? Where? "
Blake gestured vaguely, back toward the cave they had just vacated just ahead of the ice fall. Despite dizziness and blurred vision, Travis pushed further upright listening intently for possible rescuers, trying to ignore the cracking, popping sounds as aftershocks rippled through the icy tunnel.
Shaking his head in disbelief, "I hear a high-pitched whine, though it could be the wind." He glanced around the icy labyrinth that threatened to become their joint tomb, "I doubt that lackwit section leader, seconding me, would have the initiative or ability to find us, considering how far we were carried by that avalanche."
Blake sat there pensively for a moment. "Avon -- with Orac's help -- might be more successful at determining our location . . . if the others were able to convince him to do so."
They stared at one another with growing suspicion as the unanticipated rescue attempt threatened to undermine the tentative rapport they had shared moments before - when they thought they were on the brink of death. Blake groped for his weapon, edging cautiously away, while Travis struggled to his feet, leaning heavily against one of the frozen columns.
"Listen, Blake," he declared harsh-voiced. "I recognize that sound now. It's a Mark VII high intensity laser - Federation issue. Which means Brant and the rest of my men are the ones on the other side of that ice wall. Make it easy for both of us and give me your weapon."
"No!" the rebel leader retorted in a low, dangerous voice. "I'm not going to surrender to a Federation patrol, even if it's my only way out."
"Don't be a fool," Travis said through gritted teeth. "You can't keep running forever. Sooner or later, we'll run you down and destroy that ship and your crew with it. Surrender now
. . . and I'll . . ."
". . . testify on my behalf?" Blake finished bleakly. "I think not, Commander. I doubt that would do either of us any good. No, despite your convincing argument, I still don't believe a corrupt and repressive government should be tolerated just because it's better than anarchy. And I will bring down the Federation, no matter the cost." His dark eyes glittered with feverish intensity.
The Federation officer lunged forward, grabbing for the energy gun but Blake fired at the pillar he was leaning on, which collapsed, burying Travis in icy debris. Pivoting sharply, he careened across the cavern floor until he crashed against the far wall. Gasping for breath, he spotted a crevasse that opened upwards, apparently a result of the recent glacial shift, and scrambled inside, although it was a narrow squeeze for his broad shoulders. There was no certainty it would take him to the surface, but at least it allowed him to elude Travis and his potential rescuers, for the moment. If it actually was a Federation patrol that he and Travis had heard, Blake thought ruefully to himself. It would be ironic if it was Avon or Dickon's men he had fled from, although he doubted Travis would appreciate the irony as their captive.Still, he had run, burning his bridges behind him, and he had no choice but to continue along this narrowing passageway and hoping to find an exit from his icy dungeon.
The crevasse began to close in around him and Blake was forced to use his weapon to widen it. It was a risky procedure and the frozen walls groaned and shifted, threatening to collapse completely, entombing him within their depths. His breathing grew harsh and labored as he inched through on a winding erratic course, always trying to angle upwards although he did not know how far he was from the surface. Then the passageway came to an abrupt dead end and Blake gazed in despair at the glazed walls of ice all around him. His only way out was to retrace his steps, possibly into the waiting arms of a Federation patrol. Except he was just too cold and tired to move any further. Slumping against the frozen wall, he stared into the face of death.
Alone and silent, he thought in resignation. Not the way I thought my life would end, despite Cally's Auron curse. If I could only believe the others would continue my fight against the Federation until Liberator lived up to her name, it would be easier to let go . . . "
His eyes fluttered closed and darkness descended.
Although accustomed to rugged terrain and harsh weather conditions, Cally still found herself lagging behind Avon and Dickon as they slogged across the glacier. Something about their surroundings and its bleak, pristine desolation touched a painful chord of memory deep inside. She found herself recalling the terrible loneliness that had haunted her on Saurian Major after her fellow rebels fell victim to the Federation engineered virus. Even though she was surrounded by Dickon's men, an overpowering feeling of isolation and impending doom clutched her heart as the curse she had once hurled in Blake's face filled her mind, along with a claustrophobic image of crystalline walls closing in around her.
With a moan of denial, she dropped to her knees gasping in desperation, "Blake . . ." Half-blinded by the rising storm, Dickon glanced back then tugged at Avon's sleeve, "Your shipmate . . . that Auron girl. Something's wrong."
Avon trudged to her side, glaring at her suspiciously. "Cally." His precise intonation was coolly dispassionate, hiding any hint of concern. "Have you located our fearless leader . . . still alive?"
She staggered to her feet, choking out, "Yes, still alive. Injured and half-frozen . . . the walls are closing in . . . and he can barely breathe."
Dickon glared at the featureless ice field all around them. "We're nearly five kilometers from the thermal springs, so it's unlikely there would be any caverns in this area other than very temporary ones formed by the movement of the glacier itself."
"She did say the walls were closing in and that he could barely breathe," Avon replied tersely, fine-tuning his scanner's controls.
"Do you realize just how big this glacier really is, Avon?" Dickon pushed his goggles up on his forehead. "We could dig in this one area for days and never find where Blake is trapped."
Avon ignored the rebel leader's protests, along with the stinging ice and snow that the rising wind whipped into his face, trying to translate the erratic signals he was receiving into a general ideal of Blake's location. Dickon's communicator queeped and he answered brusquely, "Wolf leader here."
"Wolf scout at Diamondback Wash. There's a Federation patrol with Mark VII laser burning through the ice here. Looks like if we want Blake, we'll have to go through them first."
"A Mark VII laser," Dickon's windburned face blanched. "And we don't have anything heavier than hand blasters." His voice was a harsh whisper, "Pull back, Ben and don't let them spot you."
"What about Blake?" the voice at the far end questioned.
Dickon did not answer but turned to Avon, his decision plain on his face.
"I'm not going to risk my people against those kinds of odds, Avon, when we aren't even sure Blake's still alive."
"You think Cally's lying?" the computer tech snarled.
"It's too big a chance to take, just based on a `feeling'," Dickon waved his arm, taking in the worsening weather conditions. "Besides this is a force ten storm blowing up and if we don't get back to our base soon, my people are in serious danger of freezing to death out here."
Avon gestured impatiently at his scanner. "There's a chance that Federation patrol may not have Blake in their clutches after all. I've isolated two life readings. One in this general vicinity and the other some distance away, likely where your scout reported that patrol. If one is Blake then the other must be Travis. The odds are fifty-fifty which one we will find, but even if this one is Travis, his men might be willing to make the exchange."
Cally bit back her outrage at Avon's cool pragmatism. Much as she wanted to repay the officer for what she suffered at Centero, Blake came first.
Dickon nodded reluctantly. "I guess we can stick around for another hour at least. Judging by what the girl said earlier, I doubt Blake will last more than another fifteen or twenty minutes, but we'll do what we can in that time." He glanced at Cally before addressing his men, "Can you give us some general idea where he is or do we just start blasting away randomly?"
The Auron guerilla closed her eyes and pressed her fingertips to her forehead, moving away from the huddled group. As she quartered across the ice, Avon alerted Jenna to the current situation.
Her response only added to the chill gripping him, "Zen's sensors indicate Exeter did intercept that distress signal and had dispatched a pursuit squadron to help with the search."
"How long do we have?" he questioned tight-lipped.
"Less than an hour."
"Put the battle computer online," he responded automatically.
"I already did," she retorted. "But how much longer are you going to be down there?"
"Even if Cally succeeds in narrowing down the search area, Dickon's people only have hand lasers which could take hours to burn to any appreciable depth. Though by then I doubt if Blake will still be alive to appreciate it."
Gan's voice rumbled over the comm, "Avon, there's a laser drill and power pack in one of the aft storerooms."
Avon felt a small trickle of hope, then quickly quashed it. "Send it down by Vila," he ordered sharply. "At this point, I'm willing to try anything."
A short time later, Gan shimmered in, with the drill and its power pack slung over one broad shoulder.
Avon glanced at him, remarking mildly, "I told Vila to bring it."
"A little man like Vila can't handle a drill this size," Gan shrugged, trying to hide how stiff and sore he still was. "Besides I've had a little experience with equipment like this and it takes a delicate touch not to cause a cave-in while you're burning through to someone."
Avon nodded absently, glancing over at Cally, moving methodically across the ice as her slender form was buffeted by the howling winds. A group of Dickon's people tried to shelter her from the growing storm but she declined, explaining the mental static from their minds interfered with her efforts to locate Blake.
As she probed deeper into the massive glacier, seeking the empty silence that she dreaded, she felt death hovering ever nearer. Her breathing slowed and her eyelids fluttered as she cast out her thoughts like a net - to grasp greyness - cold, and stifling closing in all around her as her blood congealed and heart slowed.
She struggled against that welcoming oblivion, grasping spastically for any human touch as a lifeline back. Suddenly someone was beside her, offering his support. It was Avon, judging by the diamond sharp intensity of his thoughts. She clutched his hand desperately, her short nails digging into his flesh.
"There," she gasped, pointing at the base of some tumbled blocks of ice. "Right below there . . . "
Avon did not demand his usual verification, galvanized by the urgency in her voice and touch. "Drill here," he gestured for Gan. "But carefully. We wouldn't want to incinerate Blake while we're trying to save him from freezing to death."
Ignoring Avon's acerbic words, Gan braced himself. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as he handled the unwieldy drill with a surprisingly deft touch, keeping a hair-trigger control of the angle. The white-hot beam sliced into the ice sending up a cloud of steam. Slowly, delicately, Gan guided the beam downward watching the vapors boiling around him until they suddenly vanished.
"Breakthrough," he grunted. "Hit an air pocket."
Avon slid forward, peering into the twilight chamber, squinting as he tried to pierce the gloom. At first he could see nothing but mounds of snow and half-melted chunks of ice until one of those mounds moved, shaking off the snow, and Avon spotted a hunched up body with tangled, dark curls spilling out from its furred hood.
He called up to Liberator. "We've found him, Jenna. Inside an ice cavern. Try the teleport now."
There was a long wait then Jenna replied. "No luck. Either he's not wearing a bracelet or his is broken."
Avon glared down into the cave, at the prone figure and the narrowing space as the walls of the cave began to creak and buckle, warped by the irresistible movement of the glacier. "Someone has to go down after him before that cavern collapses."
Pale and trembling, Cally slithered over beside him. "I'll go. I can tell you if it's safe to move him."
"Safe or not, we don't have a choice." Avon snapped. "Gan, help rig that harness so I can get close enough to put a bracelet on him."
As the large man hurried to comply, Cally offered again. "Let me do it. I'm slenderer, lighter. It will be less of a risk if I go down."
"No, you're too weak from your efforts to locate our fearless leader. It will have to be me." His dark eyes glittered savagely. "Just make sure Vila activates the right bracelet. I doubt we'll get a second chance."
At the fragile icy rim of the opening, Avon cautioned Gan. "Don't get too close to the edge, it looks like this whole section is weak and could collapse at any moment."
Nodding his understanding, Gan braced his legs while Avon lowered himself to Blake's side. Despite his efforts to avoid the crumbling walls, large chunks of ice began to fold inward threatening to bury the rebel leader forever. Avon grimaced, forcing himself to loosen his deathgrip on the rope, sliding faster into the darkness. The rope scorched through his hands and he landed hard, dropping to his knees as numbed fingers fumbled with his bracelet's catch. Gripping Blake's arm, he snapped the device on with satisfying click then ordered in a low hoarse voice.
"Teleport now, Vila."
Blake's body shimmered then blinked out, a split-second before a section of wall collapsed. Avon screamed, half-choked by the snow and ice showering down. "GAN, pull me up now!" No response. He glared upwards, certain he was fated to be entombed here; a frozen display warning future generations of the folly of associating with wooly headed idealists. Then with a head-snapping jerk, he was hauled out of the disintegrating cave.
On the glacier's surface, the wind velocity had risen, buffeting everyone so hard it was almost impossible to stand upright. Two of Dickon's men were bracing Gan as he heaved on the rope and the rebel leader helped Avon stagger to his feet.
"Where's Cally?" he shouted, barely able to be heard over the wind's howling.
"Teleported up with Blake. Your pilot reported two pursuit ships were landing about a mile from here." Dickon clutched at Avon's arm angrily. "What about Blake's promise? The second relay station is still intact and now there's a pursuit squadron here, too! "
Avon started to call Vila then realized his bracelet had gone with Blake.
"Gan, give me your bracelet."
The big man hesitated for just a moment then handed it over, asking mildly. "What about Dickon and his men? They can't make it back to their base in this storm."
"I'll send Vila down with more. If Liberator's still up there. With two pursuit ships planetside, there's probably a whole flotilla in orbit."
He activated the comm. "Vila, bring me up."
The abrupt change from Scandia's bitter howling winds left Avon momentarily weak-kneed and he threw back the hood of his parka with a sigh of relief. Tossing the bracelet to Vila, he ordered brusquely, "Gan needs this . . . and take some extras for Blake's allies."
Hurrying up to the flight deck so Jenna wouldn't have to rely on Zen's all too
predictable battle computer, he was surprised to find Blake there, half-slumped at the comm controls, arguing with the blonde pilot. Hovering over him, Cally's tense presence and narrowed eyes practically screamed her disapproval of his words though she remained stubbornly silent.
"Are you insane, Blake? That's Travis down there . . . the man who butchered your Freedom party followers and hounded us halfway across the galaxy for months! And you want me to just let him go!" Jenna's voice trembled with rage and disbelief.
"The shuttle's unarmed."
"Those two pursuit ships certainly aren't," she countered, her hands tightly clenched on the weapons board. "You don't expect me to just sit here and let them take potshots at us?"
"They won't do that. They're answering a distress signal," he protested weakly. "On a rescue mission."
"That never stopped them before," she spat. "What's wrong with you?"
"Yes, Blake," Avon interrupted in a menacing purr. "Why the sudden humanitarian concern? That ice-covered hell didn't extinguish your burning idealism, did it? Or cool your passion to destroy the Federation and obliterate its evil influence throughout the galaxy?"
Despite the fact he was barely able to stand, Blake turned the full force of his compelling gaze on the infuriated pilot, "If we shoot them down now . . . we're no better than they are."
Still muffled in their ice-covered parkas, Dickon and his men came up behind Avon just in time to catch the tag end of Blake's argument.
"And what about my people, Blake? If Travis escapes now, he'll likely return with a bloody expeditionary force."
"No," Blake answered low-voiced as his knees threatened to buckle. "Once Liberator leaves he won't have any reason to come back."
"That's enough, Blake," Cally ordered sharply. "You're coming with me to the medunit - now, if I have to knock you out and drag you."
Blake nodded, reluctant to abandon Dickon still seething with anger and betrayal but his feet felt like two blocks of ice and the whole room was spinning.
When he opened his eyes again, he was lying on one of the combination bed-treatment tables, swaddled in warm blankets with regen pads wrapped around his frostbitten feet and hands. Seeing he was awake, Cally brought a faintly steaming cup over to him.
"I want you to drink all of this, Blake. Your body temperature is still dangerously low and you're severely dehydrated."
Nodding weakly, he propped himself on one elbow with her help and managed to swallow nearly half the hot sweet drink before stopping to catch his breath.
"Is Dickon still here?"
"He and his men were returned to their base right after we destroyed the Federation relay station . . . as you promised."
"I didn't realize I was out that long," he answered hoarsely, letting his eyes flutter closed momentarily, then forcing them open once again.
"What about Travis's ship . . . and the pursuit squadron?"
The Auron's deliberately neutral expression did not hide the rage that burned in her heart against the Federation in general . . . and Travis in particular.
"Jenna allowed them to depart unchallenged. We left orbit shortly afterwards since the cruiser that dispatched them is still in this sector and would doubtless show its appreciation of your humanitarian gesture by attempting to blow Liberator to pieces."
She continued, still tight-lipped with disapproval, "I still do not understand why you would allow a monster like Travis to escape when we could have ended his reign of terror permanently."
Blake eased himself back down, his dark eyes haunted. "Sometimes when you are face to face with such a monster, you discover he is much more human than you ever imagined. Who can say what kind of pain warped his past and shaped his present?"
He drew his arm wearily across his forehead. "And it seems futile to put an end to one man's reign of terror by using the same kind of terrorist tactics he employed."
A faint bemused smile momentarily relieved the sternness of Cally's expression as she dimmed the overhead lights. Sighing wearily, Blake closed his eyes and let the reassuring hum of Liberator's engines lull him to sleep.
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